For the last few weeks I’ve been suffering from a particularly persistent (and infectious) earworm. It’s Needles and Plastic by early ‘80s Flying Nun 3-piece DoubleHappys. It’s a song I’ve loved since the first time I heard it back in 1985 when I was a sneering (and insecure) 18 year-old bashing away in the Christchurch music scene.
The singer, Shayne Carter, was the king of sneer and, to be fair, there was plenty to sneer at in the world of 1985 which tends only to get appreciated in a jovially mocking manner, or as dewy-eyed nostalgia (big hair, lame rock, the ‘protection’ of the nuclear umbrella, Reagan selling drugs to fund terrorists while skipping merrily towards dementia, Thatcher tagging along in shoulder pads).
1985 was also a time when every mainstream radio programmer claimed all New Zealand music was ‘shit’, and much of the public agreed. But, like Reagan and his dodgy mates, they were wrong.
There was heaps of good music happening in NZ and the fact that those scraped-together recordings and ropey pressings continue to hold high value in the USA and Europe is testament to that (even 2nd hand copies of the insignificant FN E.P. I played on in ’87 have reached $400).
Why is it still valued? (beyond obvious nostalgia value). I believe it’s because it was fresh and real, with an energy akin to the first rock ‘n’roll that swept away the manufactured crooners in the ‘50s, or the British Invaders of the early ‘60s who made the processed US ‘rock’ acts irrelevant, or the US/UK punks of the early/mid ‘70s who popped the bloated balloon of Led Zep and pomp rock.
It spoke to me not just because of the subject matter but because the music sounded real. The drums, the guitars, the keyboards weren’t pumped full of processing in $200 an hour studios, they were noisy and nasty, grabbing your attention as if you were in the same room (or garage) as them.
It starts with a wonderfully blunt snark at a bogan:
Fat cunt in a studded belt, my god I think he thinks he’s something else
When he’s just another zombie probably made out of needles and plastic
And moves to a brilliantly economic couplet describing a pissed goth girl:
White, white girl in a black, black dress
She’s only pretty as in much of a mess
She’s just another zombie, probably made out of needles and plastic
Musically, it chugs along like you’re in the room watching it all
Everybody’s watching everybody else
But everybody’s watching out for themselves
It’s a shallow
I don’t think I’m right, I don’t think I’m right, I
Know that I am!
It’s the nature of earworms (songs in your head you can’t get rid of) that they’re hard to escape. One method is to listen to the song repeatedly to kill it (I learned this from an article about earworms where, ironically, Shayne Carter said he had once been tortured for many weeks by Achey Breaky Heart). So, with this song continually on my mind I decided that I had to buy a copy from iTunes and thrash it to death. After all, even though I own Needles and Plastic on two original vinyl releases (the E.P. it first appeared on, Cut It Out, and the Flying Nun compilation, Tuatara) I haven’t owned a turntable in 15 years (I also have it on a mix-tape… but my last tape deck died 5 years ago and has not been replaced).
Never mind, I thought, I’m more than happy to pay $1.97 for a single (which, ironically, is the same price singles were when I started buying them in 1979).
The problem is Needles and Plastic is available on iTunes only in the form of two ‘album only’ album downloads. And I already own both of those pieces of plastic… I just don’t have the needle.
Which led to much frustration as the earworm continued to eat away at my brain.
But in the 21st century there is always more than one way skin a cat, so to speak (thank you interweb).
I ripped the song from YouTube and whacked it onto my iPhone and have been singing along again and again, chewing away at the tail of the earworm.
It’s every bit as good as I remember. So full of life and energy.
It makes me wish I had seen the DoubleHappys live. I was still at school when the Looney Tour went through town in 1984, a 16 year-old in a time when you had to be 20 to enter a pub or risk the wrath of the police. Sure, I looked 20 but my school boy band All Fall Down had just started playing in pubs, and I knew that my gigging would be in jeopardy if I was nabbed.
Aspiring to be on Flying Nun we recorded our best songs in a scraped-together studio for the always friendly and approachable Flying Nun supremo Roger Shepherd. We (unknowingly) took them to him the day after Carter’s DoubleHappy’s band mate (and childhood friend), Wayne Elsey, was killed after climbing on top of a train while on tour.
Back then, in 1985, 20 seemed so much more mature than me. Now it seems so young to die because of an ill-considered action born of youthful high spirits.
As L. P. Hartley wrote, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.
You couldn’t drink till you were 20 and they kicked you out of pubs at 10pm (or 11pm on Friday and Saturday). You had to get your money for the weekend from the bank by 4:30pm on a Friday. There was no internet or cellphones, bin Laden and Saddam were good mates of the CIA, and all NZ bands were shit. Double Happys and sky rockets were legal for Guy Fawkes, and they played music with needles and plastic.